Building a Peer-Support Program for Firefighters
By Leischen Stelter, American Military University
Firefighters are subjected to high-levels of stress and trauma and it’s an issue that can no longer be overlooked. In 2015 and 2016, more firefighters died by their own hand than in the line of duty. To stop this trend, many fire departments are creating formal peer-support programs to encourage firefighters to talk about stressors before they become overwhelming.
What is a Peer-Support Program?
Peer-support is the process of giving and receiving non-clinical assistance to achieve long-term recovery from behavioral health challenges. Support is provided by peers who have had similar experiences and provide emotional support, awareness, guidance, tips, suggestions, and an empathetic ear. The program should be confidential and members should be able to seek out peer members on their own terms and in a comfortable environment. The peer team is automatically deployed whenever there’s a line-of-duty death, an active-duty injury, or a response to a mass-casualty incident.
Starting a Program
The first step to create a formal peer-support program is identifying who would be part of the peer team. Once peer team members are selected, they need to be .
The next step is promoting the program. The best way to start an awareness campaign is to first educate the fire chief and assistant chiefs, followed by shift commanders, and then move down the ranks. It is critical to have the buy-in from high-ranking officers to ensure the program has support.
Introducing firefighters to the program should be done in the firehouse and preferably in groups less than 10. The presentation about the program should be short, no more than 15 minutes, and inform firefighters about the new program, how it works, the benefits, and emphasize leadership’s support so firefighters know they are able to participate without retribution. The department should create a brochure or pamphlet about the program and make it easily available, but not force anyone to take information.
Know When to Seek Professional Help
Peer-support members bridge the gap between firefighters and clinicians. While lending an empathetic ear and allowing firefighters to talk about trauma and emotions is often the first step towards healing, peer support members are not trained clinicians and cannot provide the level of therapy that some firefighters might need. Therefore, peer members must be prepared to recommend clinicians to assist firefighters.
Peer team members should build a network of professionals including psychologists, social workers, marriage and family therapists, psychiatrists, chemical dependency counselors, and clergy. They also must know of other professionals who can provide addiction services as well as financial assistance to help with debt problems or retirement guidance.
Find Clinicians Who Understand the Fire Service
It is critical for peer members to be able to recommend clinicians who understand firefighters. This is extremely difficult and requires networking in the local area to find clinicians who have been trained to treat public safety professionals. Helping Heroes is one organization that helps train clinicians.
Know How Insurance Works
Peer members should also understand their department’s insurance plan and know what is covered under that plan. For someone needing help, adding financial worries to the equation may deter them from following through with professional help. If peer members do their homework and understand insurance coverage, they can help find a clinician who can best serve that firefighter.
Why Peer Support Works Better than CISM
Peer-support programs are often more beneficial in helping firefighters cope with stress and trauma than Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) programs. That’s largely because the peer support model is designed to be more approachable. Firefighters are more likely to approach a trusted colleague, and the peer support model allows them to do that in a private, confidential setting whenever they feel ready to do so.
CISM, on the other hand, is conducted in a group setting and encourages members to talk immediately after an incident. The facilitator is often someone outside the organization who is unknown to firefighters. This approach is often uncomfortable for many firefighters and it also can lead to firefighters suffering from vicarious trauma while listening to the experience of others at the scene.
While every department’s peer team may operate a little differently, the most important element is maintaining confidentiality. In order to help firefighters cope with stress, there must be complete confidence in peer team members and in the program overall.